COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Legal arguments for and against Ohio’s new maps of state legislative districts centered Wednesday on whether it was okay for a powerful new redistricting commission to disregard constitutional language that required at least an attempt at avoiding partisan favoritism.
The issue is pivotal to three lawsuits that are serving as the first test of the Ohio Supreme Court’s authority to enforce a new redistricting system overwhelmingly approved by Ohio voters in 2015.
Wednesday’s court and government television livestreams of the hotly contested cases were viewed by more than 3,300 people.
The dispute comes amid the process of redrawing legislative and congressional district maps that states must undertake once per decade to reflect changes from the U.S. Census. Wednesday’s arguments related only to legislative maps, not the one for U.S. House districts.
Advocacy and Democratic groups — the plaintiffs — argue the new boundaries undermine voters’ rights. Lawyers for the state defend the district boundaries, which maintain Republicans’ Statehouse supermajorities, as constitutional.
Justices can either affirm the maps or send them back to the Ohio Redistricting Commission to be redrawn.
ACLU of Ohio legal director Freda Levenson told justices Wednesday that the court can’t simply throw out the section of the Ohio Constitution that talks about maps not being “drawn primarily to favor or disfavor a political party.”
“The only way the enacted plan can stand is if the respondents convince you that (Title XI) Section 6 consists of empty words that they were free to ignore,” Levenson said. “But this provision is real and this court has the authority to enforce it.”
Attorney Phillip Strach, one of the outside lawyers representing Republicans, disagreed. He said Section 6 is part of a “carrot-and-stick” approach contained in the constitutional amendment aimed at encouraging compromise, arguing that justices have no authority to enforce the section as long as other sections were met.
“We’re not arguing that Section 6 is like the appendix in the body, it’s just of no use out there hanging,” he said, suggesting it’s of use when the other requirements are violated.
Besides requiring an attempt at avoiding partisan favoritism, the section also requires an attempt to balance districts based on the proportion of voters they contain of each party.
Justice Jennifer Brunner said “it’s clear from the evidence” that the commission didn’t attempt proportionality.
Opponents hope the court rules against the maps and includes in that decision clear guidance for the Ohio Redistricting Commission for making new maps that are constitutional.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a potentially key swing vote amid the court’s 4-3 Republican majority, asked a series of questions on what that guidance might entail — and what would happen if the map, again, was viewed by opponents as unconstitutional.
Strach said a challenge could be taken to federal court and the litigation could potentially go on “ad nauseum.”
Justices noted the time pressure in the cases, given the candidate deadline for 2022 is Feb. 2.
Among groups involved in the challenges are the National Democratic Redistricting Committee’s legal arm, the ACLU, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, CAIR-Ohio, the League of Women Voters and the A. Philip Randolph Institute.
After the arguments concluded, about three dozen people rallied outside the Supreme Court, holding signs that said “Ohio is all in for fair maps” and calling on the court to order that the legislative maps be redrawn.
Pierrette Talley of Toledo, one of the named lawsuit plaintiffs, said the maps as drawn exclude her as a Black voter by diluting the power of her ballot.
“Fair maps are important because it affords the citizens of Ohio a more balanced approach to discussions and debates at the state and federal level that ensure that every community is represented,” said Talley, 65, who runs a nonprofit coalition that works to register Black Ohio voters.
Associated Press writer Andrew Welsh-Huggins contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to reflect that 3,300 people, not 15,000, watched livestreams of the arguments.